STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Gypsy Love

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Gypsy Love Some weeks ago, I concentrated on an early-'60s musical (The Fantasticks), while some weeks before that, I discussed a late-'60s musical (Hair). Now are you ready for a mid-'60s musical to give you the third jewel of the Triple Crown?

Some weeks ago, I concentrated on an early-'60s musical (The Fantasticks), while some weeks before that, I discussed a late-'60s musical (Hair). Now are you ready for a mid-'60s musical to give you the third jewel of the Triple Crown?

Bajour.

Bajour, the musical tale of gypsies trying to pull one over some naive New Yorkers, opened exactly a year after the Kennedy assassination -- November 22, 1964 -- and was gone the following June, after 232 performances.

I saw the show during its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, and never expected to see it again. According to Judith Calabria Post, who runs the Actors Collaborative, a community theater in Foxboro, Massachusetts, it hasn't been done since. "But I saw it as a teenager at the Shubert in New York, loved it, and always wanted to do it."

Easier said than done. "I tried everywhere to find it," she says. "Your book didn't have it, either." She's referring to "Let's Put on a Musical," in which I listed shows available through the four major musical licensers (MTI, R&H, Samuel French, and Tams-Witmark). As it turned out, Post would finally find Bajour in 1992, courtesy of the Dramatic Publishing Company in Woodstock, Illinois.

That brought a new problem, though. "They sent me a script and the music -- but all there was were the piano parts. And I wanted a nice, full rich orchestral sound."

Dramatic Publishing couldn't find the orchestrations (done by a man more famous for accompanying Judy Garland: Mort Lindsey), so Post did something dramatic. She called her cousin Brian Galante, a graduate student in music at LSU. With a little help from his computer, he re-scored Walter Marks' music. Sure, he was highly influenced by the originals, but he gave the show a softer and gentler sound at times.

I know, because on May 16, I saw the Actors Collective's Bajour in the second of its five performances run at the rented Orpheum Theatre in Foxboro (where a professional company usually resides. Raquel Welch is there now doing Shaw's The Millionairess).

The orchestra was in the pit, down to a gypsy fiddle, playing an overture that included "Must It Be Love," "Living Simply," and the title tune. Then, after Cockeye Johnny Dembo rented a storefront under false pretenses, the gypsies moved in. They ran down the aisles singing, "Move Over, New York" -- in their best Massachusetts accents ("Move o-vuh! Move o-vuh!").

It's still a spirited opening number, even if some of the gypsies' sentiments can't sit well with a middle-class audience. "Since a gypsy's known for stealing; now it's time we should begin ... picking pockets in Pittsburgh, stealing hubcaps in Detroit ... Law and order is sweeping the country, it's loused up the atmosphere."

Hmmm.

But the next song is the one that had really consternated my October 3, 1964 audience. Emily, a would be-anthropologist, sang, "Where Is the Tribe for Me?' in which she replicated the sounds of wild birds, poisoned darts, jungle cats, boa constrictors, gorillas, quicksand, laughing hyenas, stampeding elephants, and drums. How well I remember the stunned silence from the Boston Brahmins who thought they'd just witnessed Nancy Dussault having a nervous breakdown. How well I'll remember that here, Sheila Newton got every laugh in one of the most eccentric show songs ever written.

Of course, community theaters always have talented women, so there was no problem in casting Anyanka, either, the mean gypsy woman created by Chita Rivera. Pam Shapiro was more zaftig than Chita, but she had the sensuality, especially when she danced with her would-be-betrothed, Dembo's son Steve. Shapiro was the choreographer, too. How was the dancing? Well, the word I think I'd use is athletic.

It was community theater, after all. As soon as a song started, on went the spotlight onto the singer. Songs were sung straight out to the audience when the characters supposedly listening were standing far behind them. The pleasantly designed in-one backdrops sometimes hit the stage with a thud when they flew in. But at least the Actors Collective was professional enough to fly them in.

Post wisely kept the action in 1964. There is, after all, a lyric in which Emily lusts for Rock Hudson. A picture of LBJ sneered down from a police officer's wall, and everyone made phone calls on a dial telephone. When Momma asked what she'd tell her friends about having a single daughter, Emily quipped, "Tell them I'm having an affair with Norman Mailer."

As that line might suggest, the problem with Bajour is that now- and-forever musical theater bugaboo -- the book. Ernest Kinoy started one scene with "She's gonna do what?" followed by "I told you -- she's gonna give away the money." He made Emily's Momma a quintessentially Jewish one, and had her say of her deceased husband, "Once we had an argument for three hours, and then he said something." Nor was Kinoy above using, "I only wish your father were alive to see this -- because this would kill him" which didn't get a big as laugh as it did when put to better use in A Funny Thing Happened.

There are those who may feel he overdid the gypsies' earthiness, too. Anyanka called Johnny's women "You Dembo cows," and said of her father, "That ol' goat will keep chiseling down-payments until I dry out like a raisin." Finally, Kinoy couldn't get past one insurmountable obstacle: Stealing can't be anything but unsavory. Case in point dialogue: Police Officer: "What are you doing?" Emily (delightedly): "Shoplifting."

Walter Marks' wordplay, though, still shows care and concern. "Ill- be-gotten gains can still be gotten here," say the gypsies. Snarls Anyanka, "I've got more callous malice deep inside than ever lived in Dr. Jekyll's hide." And Emily declines a police officer's proposal by predicting that if she accepts, "I'll be darning your socks and damning your hide."

The production also showed us that there's a little more of the score than we heard on the LP, or the no-bonus-track CD. There are reprises of "Tribe" (Sang Emily to Momma, "There, there is the tribe for me. I never dreamed they'd be near the BMT.") and "Bajour," in which Emily decides to become the gypsies' confederate. There are some extra lyrics and additional dialogue permeating "I Can," which was the best number in the production, because both Newton and Shapiro got their one and only duet.

As it turns out, my feeling about Bajour wasn't much different from the one I formulated more than a third-of-a-century ago. As is the case with so many also-rans, there's an affable first act which made me say, "This isn't so bad," followed by a second act that caused me to admit, "Yes, it is."

So was Post dumb as one to do it? Not at all. Bajour greatly pleased its audience. I went with a Boston friend who had also seen the show in 1964, and he was so impressed that he returned the following week for the closing. "As big as the response was the night we went," he reported, "the sold-out crowd -- which included Walter Marks! -- liked it even more this time. And how Ken Butler grew as Cockeye Johnny Dembo!"

I sure didn't regret driving hundreds of miles to get there. The production brought back two of my favorite theatrical memories. For in 1964, during the curtain call, Chita Rivera stared down at me in my front-row seat, and gave me a wink. I was in heaven -- just as I was in 1983, when my 11-year-old son and I sat and saw Ms. Rivera from the second-row center in Merlin, where, during the curtain call, my son turned to me and said, "Daddy! She winked at me!"

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com